By Emma Spalti

Last summer, the nonprofit International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) accomplished one of the greatest collaborations in journalism history when it unveiled the Panama Papers. The Panama Papers leaked “11.5 million financial and legal records… [detailing] a system that enables crime, corruption and wrongdoing, hidden by secretive offshore companies.” The project used innovative and affordable techniques that brought about the participation of 400 journalists. In June, during the height of the work’s fame, the New York Times published a story on the problematic relationship of the Consortium and its award-winning parent organization, the Center for Public Integrity. On October 20, unable to resolve years of building tensions, the two organizations announced that their relationship was coming to an end.

The Center for Public Integrity started the ICIJ in 1997 as a project to advance international investigative journalism while it continued to focus on domestic issues. The Consortium worked continuously to innovate in the field of international investigative journalism. “Our aim is to bring journalists from different countries together in teams – eliminating rivalry and promoting collaboration. Together, we aim to be the world’s best cross-border investigative team.” However, the Center controlled the Consortium’s budget, which created problems over the past several years as the ICIJ grew and became more successful while the Center struggled financially. As the world stood in awe of the work of the ICIJ, three journalists who had worked on the Panama Papers were laid off, three more positions went unfilled, and their offices were closed and moved into the Center for Public Integrity.

The Times article painted a picture of how the Center’s previous financial failures hindered the success of the ICIJ, reducing its capacity, harming staff morale, and forcing its director, Gerard Ryle, into a difficult position as a manager. “‘(You always want more staff and more funding […] But I have to accept the situation as it is. My job is to get on with things no matter what.’” At the same time, the director of the Center for Public Integrity, Peter Bale discussed how the two organizations struggled to work together, but that separation was not the solution because “…the center’s board opposes such a move.”

While it is still not perfectly clear why the ICIJ and the Center could not make their relationship work, the Times portrays the situation as an organization of potential, constrained by its less effective founder. However, one must acknowledge that the service these organizations created together was substantial. The issues between these two organizations are clearly real, but they truly accomplished the Center’s mission: to “serve democracy by revealing abuses of power, corruption and betrayal of public trust by powerful public and private institutions…” Now the ICIJ needs to demonstrate that its success was reached in spite of, not because of, its parent organization and that increased success is coming as a result of the break.

While leaving gives the ICIJ and its director the freedom to choose its own mission and control its own budget, it leaves Ryle and his team to succeed or fail on their own. In many ways, the split compromises the greatest strengths of the ICIJ, collaboration and innovation. A new strategy needs to be developed in order to secure a future for this twenty-year-old institution.

To direct its strategy, the Consortium needs to create its own mission statement. It lacked one previously and presumably operated under the Center’s. According to M.H. Moore, as an essential part of strategy, the mission statement and subsequent strategies “talk in concrete terms that allow them to visualize the results and hold the organization accountable for achieving them.” The mission statement must show staff, journalists, and donors how the ICIJ is distinct from the Center, while it maintains its most essential characteristics. The mission should focus on furthering international investigative journalism through collaboration and innovation. It’s an opportunity to secure journalist and donor resources and reassure staff that their organization is becoming what it was meant to be.

The ICIJ’s greatest accomplishment was born of collaboration. Their magnum opus was their months-long endeavor to bring together and keep together hundreds of investigative journalists, typically characterized as “lone wolves.” Ryle’s directions were “the key to the success of the investigation was that we kept the team together, no matter the difficulties…” This “no matter what” comment by Ryle is not dissimilar to the statement he gave to the Times. However, the ICIJ has now proven that it cannot collaborate under every circumstance. Also damaging is that the Times articles specified that the two groups were combining offices only months ago, making the split seem more haphazard than deliberate. The Consortium’s ability to solve problems and work to resolve issues with others through collaboration and innovation can now be called into question. This is doubly troublesome in nonprofit journalism. “Without attending to the desires and preferences of those who supply resources to organizations, the organizations cannot survive.” For the ICIJ, those “resources” mean both the widespread, loosely tied together journalists, as well as their donors. If journalists in countries like China, (where the Panama Papers triggered a massive crack-down on the press as well as on basic internet access,) cannot trust the ICIJ to manage its relationships, no product like the Panama Papers can be produced again.

Securing and stabilizing relationships is incredibly important for the Consortium. The regional coordinators must work to solidify relationships with journalists regularly working with the ICIJ, as well as those who only participated in the Panama Papers. If relationship management brought them to their greatest work, solidifying their newly autonomous organization must become their second greatest work.

As with most organizations with great potential, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists faces a situation fraught with risk. This break seems to have been coming for years, and betrays a structural instability which needs to be managed for the Consortium to continue furthering the cause of investigative journalism internationally. The director needs to utilize his team, and the methods that have served ICIJ so well, for the development of a functional strategy to move the Consortium forward.